JEFFERSON always looked back upon the period of his governorship as a painful episode in an otherwise long and fruitful life, and sought as much as possible to bury it in oblivion. His Autobiography, meticulously detailed before and after, dismisses these two years in a single paragraph and hastens on to more congenial topics.
For this highly self-conscious attitude there is much justification. With all his talents, zeal and undoubted patriotism, Jefferson was not the man for the job in the peculiar chaos of Virginia at the time. The war, which had nibbled on its borders and coast line for several years, was now to march full-panoplied into its very vitals; finances, the life blood of a beleaguered commonwealth, were disintegrating under the impact of an uncontrolled inflation; a jealous individualism and a suspicion of all authority, local or continental, hamstrung systematic endeavor; while a constitution that would have proved inefficient in time of peace literally fell to pieces in time of war.
To surmount these obstacles required a strong and even ruthless executive; one who was willing, when necessary, to overlook the letter of the constitution and the limitations on his powers; to act first in an emergency and seek the legal justification for the act later. In short, to be something of a dictator. Jefferson was not that man.
The chief trouble was the Virginia constitution. In the reaction against the "tyrant of Britain," Virginia had placed practically all power in the legislative as against the executive. The Governor was in effect the arm of the Assembly, its faithful follower of instructions. And, to make certain that those instructions were properly adhered to, a Council of State had been created, appointed by the Assembly, ostensibly to assist and advise the Governor but actually, as it turned out, to make decisions for him to follow. Further to complicate matters, a Board of War and a Board of Trade had been instituted (and this had been a recommendation of the Revisors, of which Jefferson was a member), appointed by the Assembly and subject to the control of the Council of State and the Governor.
The machinery, in short, was cumbersome and unwieldy, and wholly unfit for the rapid decisions required in a state of war and invasion.
The tendency has been to blame the constitution of Virginia, as prepared by other hands, for these shackles on Jefferson's regime. But his own draft constitution had insisted on practically similar restraints. Indeed, his definition of an executive was remarkable for its negativism; the powers